Animation’s 10 sharpest turns

Important pix that developed the art, changed public perception

For 100 years, animation has kept pace with — and often advanced — the art of motion picture storytelling. The development and maturity of the animated film over the past century neatly reflects ongoing changes in technology, social attitudes and artistic trends, with 10 toons in particular standing out as clear-cut turning points in the history of animation. These important films developed the art and changed public perception permanently. Not all of them were “firsts” — there was animation before “Gertie the Dinosaur,” sound cartoons before “Steamboat Willie” and animated features before “Snow White” — but all of these landmark films were important enough, and successful enough, to advance animation to the state we know today.


The sheer novelty of drawings-that-move wowed audiences who first saw them in nickelodeons and in vaudeville. But film animation before “Gertie” primarily consisted of dancing stick figures, stop-motion trick films and experimental non-narrative pieces — movement for movement’s sake. With “Gertie,” Winsor McCay created the medium’s first original cartoon star: an ink drawing alive with real personality. McCay’s renown as a newspaper cartoonist led other comicstrip creators to begin adapting their work to the screen — and the studio system of factory-style animation production was born. From “Gertie” on, animated cartoons would be a staple of the moviegoing experience.


Though talkie films (and even cartoons with added sound) appeared before “Steamboat Willie,” Walt Disney’s landmark Mickey Mouse cartoon marked the beginning of a new era in animation. By carefully synchronizing the images on screen to specific musical beats, Disney pioneered something his forerunners neglected. It also helped that Disney’s animation was more polished and appealing than his competitors’, and his story had plenty of gags. The picture was state-of-the-art entertainment in 1928, a must-see that not only demonstrated what Disney and his artists could do, but established the Hollywood cartoon as a short-subject institution.


Disney used his capital as an industry leader to take animation to new heights in the 1930s. He pioneered cartoon storytelling and achieved breakthroughs with character animation; he brought color and depth (via the multiplane camera) to cartoons; and he won the public’s imagination (and several Oscars) creating such characters as Donald Duck and the Three Little Pigs. Ridiculed in production as “Disney’s Folly,” his feature-length “Snow White” went on to become the blockbuster event of 1938, bringing the animated cartoon to a new level of art — and respect.


By 1950, the animated cartoon had fallen into a rut. It was all funny animals, slapstick humor and fairy tales — the stuff of Saturday matinees. A small band of Disney renegades formed UPA (United Prods. of America) in the mid-’40s, setting out to do what Disney wouldn’t dare. Working with small budgets on commercial and industrial films, UPA discovered several new production shortcuts and, with innovative production design and clever direction, pioneered an animation new wave. A deal for short subjects with Columbia Pictures expanded UPA’s vision, culminating in this Oscar-winning short (based on a Dr. Seuss story). Modern art, adult protagonists (like Mr. Magoo) and stylized production design inspired a new generation of animators around the world, in ways still felt today in TV shows like “Samurai Jack” and the opening titles of “Monsters, Inc.”


ABC’s first primetime cartoon “The Flintstones” — featuring a bombastic suburban husband, his simpleton friend and two clever wives, set in a suburban Stone Age — established television animation as a genre that was here to stay. Earlier efforts such as “Ruff ‘n’ Reddy,” “Huckleberry Hound” and “Yogi Bear” skewed toward kids and followed the theatrical-short model of six minutes of comic misadventure. “The Flintstones” was (at the time) an edgy half-hour sitcom (complete with laugh track) aimed at adults — a “prehistoric” template for “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”


Ralph Bakshi opened a new door with his adaptation of R. Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat.” A forerunner to today’s “South Park” and Adult Swim shows, this X-rated feature contained sex, violence and language never before associated with animated films — and boldly declared that cartoons weren’t only for kids. Bakshi spoke to the new generation in a language they could understand and proved animation was capable of tackling more mature themes, storylines and attitudes. Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” and Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” owe a great deal to Bakshi’s breakthrough films of the 1970s.

AKIRA (1988)

Japanese animation dates back to the 1910s. But its worldwide popularity and acceptance reached a pinnacle with the release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk masterpiece. “Akira” shattered the “Speed Racer”/”Gigantor” TV cartoon stereotype that had defined Japanese animation for Americans, showing auds the vital art form it had become. Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki are masters of the form, but Otomo’s opus boasted cinematic power with high style, an adult storyline and jaw-dropping visuals. Its influence is felt in every subsequent “adventure” cartoon made for TV — and even live-action work from directors such as the Wachowski brothers, Luc Besson and J.J. Abrams.


There’s no denying Matt Groening’s cartoon family a place in the animation record books. But “The Simpsons’ ” achievements are well earned — and pivotal to the current state of the art. For one thing, the show renewed an interest in primetime animation that hasn’t abated to this day. Groening’s characters not only became a signature for the Fox network, but the show’s adult-skewed, writer-driven approach spawned numerous wannabe series — each reflecting and satirizing American life in ways live-action series never could.


Breaking the mold from the networks’ bland, cookie-cutter, Saturday-morning cartoon model, John Kricfalusi’s artist-driven kidvid accomplishment could be seen as the flip side of what “The Simpsons” achieved for adults: cartoons for cartoons’ sake. The show’s retro style has influenced the look of kids’ cable animation ever since (from Sponge Bob to the Powerpuff Girls — even the bigscreen’s Shrek and Scrat) and, to the chagrin of parents everywhere, made it safe for flatulence, burp and booger jokes to thrive and prosper.

TOY STORY (1995)

As the first computer-generated feature-length film, “Toy Story” paved the way for animated movies as we know them today. Critics at the time marveled at the film’s technical achievement. Animators were overwhelmed by the sophisticated 3-D character animation. But moviegoers (and Pixar) knew better: It’s the story that makes auds care about the characters. John Lasseter had harnessed the skills of his traditionally trained animation staff to make the computer the animation tool of the 21st century.

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